On Sunday night, after Tiger Woods won the Masters, I did something I had never done. After finishing dinner, I grabbed my golf clubs and headed to an indoor golf facility to hit balls. A busy work schedule coupled with bad weather this spring in central Indiana had prevented me from hitting a single shot this year, until Sunday night. Woods gets all of the credit for motivating this 65-year-old man to do such a thing.
I remember Jack Nicklaus’ victory in the 1986 Masters, and it served up similar inspiration and conversation. This Masters was different. In winning his 15th major championship – and first in 11 years – Woods overcame more than any athlete in the history of sports to complete his miraculous comeback. That in itself should be a great shot of adrenalin for golf.
As the owner and operator of a golf course, I can only hope that millions around the country are motivated to play more golf in 2019. Certainly, everyone in a position of leadership in the golf industry had to feel euphoric on Sunday night as Woods donned the green jacket. But, in reality, Woods’ triumph will be fleeting and not significantly affect the game unless those golf professionals and facility operators who are in the trenches follow through with the opportunity.
According to Joe Beditz, president and chief executive of the National Golf Foundation, there was a bubble in participation in the late 1990s when Woods first surfaced on the PGA Tour. Beditz says there were many factors that caused the spike in golf participation during those years.
“We had the Wall Street boom, the real estate boom and a lot of new golf courses being built,” Beditz said. “Certainly, you could make the case that some increase in participation took place due to Tiger. Looking back 20 years, minority and female participation is now up 50 percent. When Tiger is in the news and the lead, he attracts more attention to golf.”
In 2018, Woods finally began resurrecting his career after a series of injuries, surgeries and personal missteps. He won the Tour Championship and recorded six other top-10 finishes. The results stimulated interest in the game. According to the NGF, the number of people who watched or read about golf in 2018 increased to 74 million, up 10 million from 2017. The PGA Tour probably won’t give Woods sole credit, but I will.
Ironically, participation in the sport remained relatively flat from 2017-18, with 33.5 million golfers. This was composed of 24.2 million “traditional golfers,” or on-course participants, and 9.3 million off-course (Topgolf, other golf-entertainment centers and indoor ranges).
Keep in mind that nearly 70 percent of those who participated in a golf activity in 2018 did not do so by playing traditional golf. To Beditz’s point, Woods’ renewed status as a newsmaker and tournament contender in 2018 attracted more readers and viewers but not necessarily more golfers.
“This is purely speculation,” Beditz said. “I am a man of statistics, not speculation. At this moment, we are enjoying the highest interest in golf, maybe ever. But, this won’t convert golfers by itself.”
The PGA of America obviously feels the same way. Late Thursday afternoon, president Suzy Whaley and chief executive officer Seth Waugh issued a statement in which they implored the PGA’s 29,000 members and apprentices to seize “a special opportunity.” In advance of the PGA Championship on May 16-19 at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course on Long Island, they urged club pros to “take full advantage of your change to promote your programs to a newly engaged audience. We are already experiencing unprecedented levels of interest, and we want every PGA Professional to take part, as we showcase your incredible impact on the world stage.
“We’ve known that by moving the PGA Championship to May, its position would synchronize elegantly with the start of golf season for most of the country. This is now playing out with a historic story line, as Tiger has put golf on top of people’s minds in a way that transcends sports.”
There never has been a more influential figure in golf than Tiger Woods. However, even he doesn’t have a magic wand that automatically will grow the sport with his dramatic and spectacular victories. It still falls on the professionals running facilities to promote and grow the game. We will see if they can capitalize on this opportunity that Woods has served up.
Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga